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Wednesday, 20 March 2019 08:58 am

Chef, foodie, writer: David Burton

Mar 17th, 2015 | By | Category: Editor's Picks, Features, Most Popular, News, Top Picture

“If I came to your house for dinner an hour late, then criticized all your furniture and your wife’s haircut and said all your opinions were stupid, how would you feel? People still come here and expect a three-course meal in an hour. What do they think I do – pull rabbits out of a [expletive deleted] hat? I’m not a magician.” – Marco Pierre White at Harvey’s in London.

Food critics are sometimes perceived as the pantomime villains of the food industry, and captured just so in movies like Anton Ego in Ratatouille and Ramsey Michel in Chef.  Along comes the nasty reviewer, ready to pounce and make or break an establishment purely with their words.

What could be better than going from restaurant to restaurant, eating exquisite food with friends, and then writing about it?  Being a restaurant reviewer has to be one of the most glamorous jobs in the world.  You dine for free at the best places in town, and restaurateurs and chefs fawn over you.  Right?

IMAGE: Matthew Lau

IMAGE: Matthew Lau

Wellington’s most prominent food writer is David Burton, who has been a journalist for nearly 40 years.

Burton gives me an hour of his time at Le Cordon Bleu – where he lectures part-time – for an insight into the life of a restaurant critic.  We locate ourselves in a cold, well-lit room with just a table separating us.  Burton sits at ease in his blue pinstripe Le Cordon Bleu suit, ready for Christmas drinks with colleagues.  I feel like Michael Aspel presenting This Is Your Life, crossed with an interrogator.

Burton duly obliged when I pitched this article to him, it’s time to find out if he follows the same narcissistic protocol as venerated British critic A.A. Gill.

Burton stands proud as the capital’s most revered food writer after being rescued from law school.  After the first year he realised he was doing it “just to please his mother”, so instead he took up sociology at the University of Canterbury.  After graduating, his next step was an unorthodox one – he turned to cooking.

“I haven’t used that degree directly until I came here [Le Cordon Bleu]. You don’t know do you, when things are going to be proved useful to you.”

I ask Burton who his biggest inspiration is – without any hesitation he replies: “undoubtedly my father”, who died when David was only 9.

“As a boy I used to hang out in his cook shop in Nelson, watch suckling pigs being plunged into corkings of boiling water. I used to run errands for him, crack walnuts for him that sort of thing.”

His father left behind his legacy in the form of cookbooks, which definitely became a major influence for David.

With no formal culinary training, Burton embarked on his love-affair with food at a coffee house in Nelson, starting as a kitchen hand then worked his way onto the grill section.  After four and a half years he took a leap of faith, moving to Wellington to work at The Hotel Midland.

Burton enjoys the reminiscing:

“The cook was gay and all the kitchen-hands were transvestites. Waitresses had tattoos on their wrists, panels of cut up hair on each side. They would sit on my lap at mid-morning tea-time; no girl at university had ever done that!”

Burton’s passion for writing was as pervasive back then as it is now.  He used cooking as a means of making a living in London where he continued working as a chef.  It was around that time when he had an epiphany to write a book on New Zealand food and cookery, because at that stage it hadn’t been done.  That idea later came to fruition as it became his first book.

“Entering that whole of world professional cookery, it just seemed so glamourous. I decided that cooking was just too stressful, especially during service. It’s just pandemonium.”

After ditching the commercial kitchen lifestyle, he spent the better part of a year travelling across Europe and Asia in ‘76.  That had a profound influence on him too – it was there where he discovered “the cooking of the East”.

Back in New Zealand, he took up a “cushy little job” as a press officer for the tourism department and foreign affairs, his main role was escorting prime journalists around New Zealand.  He used that experience of working to get into The Evening Post newspaper.

He had no formal journalism training: “I got in through the side-door again,” he laughs.  Something he reckons you could do back then but would be a lot harder to do nowadays.

As a foodie in Wellington over the past few decades, Burton reflects on the major trend changes in the food scene:

“It has been an exciting time alright, to have been involved with food these last 30 years, because it has been such a revolution y’know. A progression from quite basic cooking to extremely sophisticated world-class cooking which we now enjoy here.”

He uses Chinese food as an example.

“Really back then those so-called Chinese restaurants, they were really just an amalgam of Cantonese Kiwi-thrifted sludge. They presented the very attenuated version of Chinese cooking, and really one of the great things that has come out of so much immigration is that today we are able to get authentic regional Chinese food.”

Now for the question most food critics abhor: “What is the best meal you have ever had?”  I just had to ask. Perhaps I caught him off guard a little, as he umm’d and ahh’d, eyes peering around the plain white room for almost an entire minute.  Eventually chuckling: “There have been a lot of memorable meals.”

“White House in Oriental Bay, the degustation they used to put on showcased wonderfully inventive stuff that Paul Hoather used to come up with. I had a fantastic meal at Le Moulin de Mougin (a 3-star Michelin restaurant in south of France). Fish wrapped in basil leaf, that was fabulous. Olives cured in sugar rather than salt, very interesting. Mussels with passion fruit would be one of the craziest ideas. Alligator with Blue Curaçao and polenta, that’s pretty rare. The zaniest was molecular gastronomy in Spain.  Things like a bowl of pebbles, some of them were in fact potatoes which had been coated with a thin layer of pharmaceutical enamel clay to look like stones.”

A conference called Madrid Fusion is one experience Burton gleefully recalls.  Namely a laboratory which was set up in the foyer of the casino by Ferran Adrià – the mastermind behind the world-famous El Bulli:

“He [Adrià] had one of his assistants stand there behind his big stainless-steel container with dry-ice smoking out of it. She fished inside and gave me this little white wafer which was fizzing around on a spoon. She said ‘now don’t put it in your mouth straight away’, but being the impulsive person I am, I did put it in my mouth straight away and it stuck to the top of my palate because it was dry ice. And then suddenly there was this explosion, ‘poof!’, and I had this really brief but intense flavour of hazelnut and then when I breathed out I breathed these plooms of vapour out of my nostril. The name of the dish indeed was ‘Dragon Puff’.”

The pinnacle restaurant guide in the world is the Michelin guide, which Burton begrudgingly asserts New Zealand does not have the resources to compare with:

“Judgments are made more perhaps from a snapshot from a single evening, I feel like that as a restaurant critic as well. I’ve only got one opportunity, whereas someone from say the New York Times might go three or four times to the same restaurant before they write the review.
But I still don’t think there are that many places that get left out or get a hat [from the Cuisine Good Food guide] when they don’t deserve one – because they are very sparing, let’s face it, about who they give them to.”

For the cynical reader, an easy axe to grind with restaurant critics is to claim that they show favouritism towards certain establishments, acting as unofficial PR.  As a writer, his loyalty lies with the consumer, not the restaurant.  Burton nonchalantly brushes off any suggestion that he’s one of those dodgy critics.

He states his criteria for selecting a place to review:
1. Newsworthiness;
2. Word of mouth;
3. If it has been in business for a while and is “worthy of another peek”;
4. New head chef with a new menu;
5. Undergone renovation;
6. It has been three years or so since last review;
7. Any new opening “because that’s what interests people most”.

“I always take a pen and paper, if there’s something really important I’ll take note. But more importantly I take photographs. Photographs give you what you need to know and also allow you to you recall particular components on a plate.”

LoganBrownAwardSteve Logan (Logan Brown and Grills Meats Beer) recalls Burton’s review of Logan’s first restaurant in 1988 – and still remembers him remarking about an avocado that was a little on the brown side.  Logan shared his thoughts:

“David Burton is an expert. He cooks, he travels, he researches, he writes. His opinion should be taken.
We pretty much ignore the positive reviews, it’s the negative reviews we always learn something from. No matter what there is something we could have done better or changed. It doesn’t matter if it’s someone reviewing online or if it’s someone who writes reviews for a living, there’s always something to learn from it.
Some customers come in wanting to see a Toyota, but we’re a Mercedes.”

As a restaurant critic, Burton remains strict on never ordering specials, just purely off the current menu.  He is always vigilant of the wider scheme of things.

“Okay they might be able to pick out a slightly better steak but they can’t change the repertoire. Yes they might give you better service but I always monitor what’s going on at the tables around me, so if they give me an amuse-bouche and they don’t bring the others an amuse-bouche then I’ll note that.”

As an owner and chef, Adam Newell (Zibibbo) doesn’t believe you can lift your game from mediocre to amazing for one person.

“Whenever he has come here it has been relatively busy, we’ve got 80 or 100 people in the restaurant – there is no way you can provide that service just for that one guy. The rest of it will just turn to chaos.
He’s in the room, he’s all part of what goes on, but we know he’s there, if you know what I mean,” Newell chuckled.

Being recognised is a major hurdle for renowned food critics to overcome.

“You’ll be surprised at how often I’m not recognised, there’s a lot of ethnic restaurants that don’t even know the existence of David Burton,” says the man himself.

Some critics go that extra mile, like famous American critic Ruth Reichl who adopts the guise of a series of eccentric personalities when she dines out to avoid any ‘special treatment’.  Burton, however, doesn’t feel the need to go to those lengths.

“I know if they know me. I’ve always had this dual role as both a restaurant critic and a food feature writer. So often I have interviewed these chefs in my role as a food feature writer, of course I’ve built up a relationship with them. So I’m not going to insult them by booking under a false name, I usually book under my own name when I know they know me.”

A prime example is in his recent appraisal of The Bresolin. Burton recounted the experience in his Dominion Post review:

BurtonReview1

 

CREDIT: Stuff.co.nz

CREDIT: Stuff.co.nz

Geoff Ngan (Shed 5 and The Crab Shack) is adamant that being recognised does impact the level of service provided:

“Regular customers are going to receive what is perceived as ‘honest’ treatment, the same treatment that probably wouldn’t be dished out to a renowned and recognised food critic. So if anything you could almost say that some of those reviews are more reliable to a degree.”

Publications in Wellington usually pay a restaurant reviewer to dine for two. The usual suspects found eating out with David is his wife of 24 years, a close friend, or his brother whose judgment David respects.  While he does set out to enjoy dining out, he remains professional on the job:

“You are there to look at the food, not just to have a good time. Give them the respect of giving your full attention to the food that’s on the plate in front of you, the service and ambience.”

The skeptic in me ponders Burton’s integrity.  Not because I think he’s untrustworthy, but because he’s simply human, like you and me.  Burton states he always tries to remain neutral:

“As much as I feel a natural affinity with chefs, I kind of also have to keep a distance a little bit, unfortunately. I’ve got really good friends that are ex-restaurateurs and ex-chefs.
If you’ve had a run-in with somebody, I try not to let that influence me when I subsequently go to review their next restaurant.”

Critics making enemies is hardly a surprise as it comes with the territory of the business.  For a critic to have any credibility, they must be honest and unafraid of offending anybody in the process.

On my quest of finding noteworthy figureheads of Wellington’s restaurant scene prepared to talk about Burton, I had three restaurant owners (who I shall not name) refuse to speak with me what is a touchy subject in the industry.

Burton laid down a challenge to me: “Go out there and find someone who thinks I’m an absolute [expletive deleted]!”

Challenge accepted!  I managed to connect with a mysterious individual who goes by the pseudonym of ‘The Masked Barfly’, revealing nothing about their self other than the fact that he or she writes opinion and gossip pieces for The Wellingtonista website and Twitter.  The Masked Barfly uses this platform to critique the critic.

“His reviews when he focuses on the food itself are generally fine, but so often he doesn’t. Reviews are more about David Burton than food,” the bold Masked Barfly said.

“His writing style is incredibly pretentious, that’s one of the things I have rated him on before when I have reviewed his reviews.
Everyone I know laughs at David Burton’s reviews. I thought it was time to finally write some of it down.
We only have one daily paper and they only have one main critic. He needs some accountability
So it’s better to treat his reviews as Performance Art. And perhaps our reactions are part of that art.
It’s using big words for the sake of pretension, condescending to the reader, making out that you know more about everything than anyone.”

The relationship between The Masked Barfly and David Burton almost mirrors that of The Joker and Batman:

“If David Burton went, what would I write about? But yes, it would be great if someone other than an old white man got some more free feeds.”

BurtonWindow2

WINDOW DRESSING: An example of a David Burton review stuck on a window of a restaurant in Wellington as promotion.

On the contrary, restaurant and café owners take pride in receiving positives enlightenment from a critic of the calibre of Burton.  If you take a wander around Wellington, you will see newspaper snippets of his reviews with a headshot of him plastered on their windows for passersby to gawp at and be lured in by.

“You can support chefs who are perhaps struggling, they haven’t got the recognition that they deserve. So I always think that is the other side of it. I have chefs come up to me and say well thanks very much for that review, you really helped us. We had a noticeable improvement in our numbers after your review was published,” Burton says with pride.

Is the need for expert food critics dying out?  Burton is certainly worried for his line of profession:

“You can’t control the way things go, but I’m a bit concerned that there’s so much wall-to-wall food shows, cooking shows, blogs etc. There’s so much inundation through the various forms of media about food these days that people are going to get sick of it.
If it wasn’t so completely saturated then maybe there isn’t that danger, but I think it is going to happen. It happened to gardening, you look at gardening in the 1990’s it was huge. There were gardening shows and then suddenly people just lost interest.
Now there are no more gardening shows on TV,” he chuckles.

Citizen journalism has spread into the reviewing market, meaning a restaurant review in a newspaper or magazine doesn’t have the same clout that it used to.  Reviews are submitted on sites such as Zomato, DineOut, and TripAdvisor by members of the public.
President of the Restaurant Association of New Zealand, Mike Egan, gives his two cents:

“Are you going to remember a review from 40 weeks ago in the Dom Post? Did you keep the newspaper? Did you cut the review out? So these days if people want to look for something they just go to Google, TripAdvisor, ask friends, go on Facebook.”

When a bunch of ordinary diners review in mass, does this give a potential diner a more succinct overview than one review from one well-travelled and well-dined critic?

“David is important, we don’t want anyone else, because he knows what he is talking about. He lives and breathes the industry, but his influence is less than it used to be,” Egan says.

BurtonWindow1

ON SHOW: A Burton review as a window promotion.

Burton, unlike many food writers, has donned the chef whites and apron in a commercial kitchen.  Do you have to have a chef’s background to know nasty from nice?  Not all art critics can paint, once in a blue moon would you come across a film critic who has ever directed a movie.

“I certainly am very pleased that I have actually worn the jacket and stood on the other side of the pass, and that I can chop an onion, can make a hollandaise. So I can just shrug my shoulders when someone writes to the papers and says ‘what are his credentials?’”

Paul Hoather (Charley Noble and Whitebait) is satisfied with the reviews Burton has given him over his 30 years in the restaurant business.

“I can’t stand the online reviews, you don’t know who it is. Like with restaurants, anybody can say anything they like these days, whereas other industries they don’t review the hairdresser who cut their hair or the shoe shop they bought their pair of shoes,” was Hoather’s blunt take on the trend.

The world of cookery in the public has never been more prominent.  More and more people know, or want to know, how to cook.  We have celebrity chefs on our screens, reality TV shows now use cooking as a means of entertainment, but Burton is not impressed.

“Winning Masterchef does not make you a ‘master chef’. You have to spend years in a kitchen before you can even you’re qualified, and you certainly don’t have the experience as the result of having won a cooking show on TV. I see it as a false status in a lot of ways.”

The 62-year-old describes himself as “old-school”; he reads material on the internet but is not actively involved with social-media.  He doesn’t have a blog, firmly stating: “My attitude is ‘til somebody is to pay me to run a blog I won’t do so’.”

A typical week for Wellington’s most eminent food writer involves lecturing at Le Cordon Bleu two or three days a week, and the rest of the time at home writing features for Cuisine magazine or writing reviews for both Cuisine and The Dominion Post.  Burton boasts about doing 95% of the cooking in his household.

“My daughter had to do a little project on me for her arts school in Auckland – one of the things she wrote is ‘opinionated’, and a nice thing she wrote is ‘likes to cook’.
Going back to this question of credibility, I think that if you want to write about food you have got to be able to cook, even as an amateur.”

Burton believes his great interest in architecture and design works well with being a restaurant critic.  While he avoided a lifetime of being a “wealthy, unfulfilled, grumpy lawyer”, he can at least I can say he’s had “a rich old life in a cultural sense”.

Burton comes across as a regular man, not a pantomime villain we should hiss at. He eats at the same restaurants you or I dine at. Watch Anton Ego in Ratatouille and Ramsey Michel in Chef, and you will notice that in the end they, too, were just normal people having a meal out – only with a pen in their hand.

Sir, I am seated in the smallest room in the house. Your review is before me. Shortly it will be behind me.” – German composer Max Reger responding to a critic. (Dukore, 1994)

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